NASHVILLE – All year long, it seemed, we waited for the magic to return.
Surely at some point, most figured, the real Ryan Tannehill – at least the one Titans fans had become used to seeing over the past two years – would appear before their eyes again.
Surely at some point, the same quarterback who piled up touchdowns while steering clear of interceptions, the man who’d resurrected his own career in Nashville in 2019, would manage to find his form.
But when Evan McPherson’s 52-yard field goal cleared the crossbar on the final play Saturday and gave the Cincinnati Bengals a 19-16 divisional-round playoff win over the Titans, it became all too clear: Whatever magic Tannehill had possessed in his first two seasons here was officially gone.
When did things change?
Maybe it started as early as a full year ago, when Arthur Smith – Tannehill’s offensive coordinator during the 2019 and 2020 seasons – was named head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Under Smith, Tannehill had posted incredible numbers in 26 starts – 55 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions, while completing better than 67 percent of his throws.
Maybe it should have been apparent in training camp last August, when Tannehill was throwing the kind of interceptions we hadn’t seen at all in the lead-up to his 2020 season. Probably not that big a deal, most of us figured at the time. Giving Tannehill the benefit of the doubt, we gave props to the Titans secondary for its improvement.
Maybe the fade became even worse with all the offensive injuries around Tannehill this season – his best receivers in and out of the lineup on a weekly basis, a lack of continuity on the offensive line, Derrick Henry lost for the remainder of the regular season after Week 8.
Whatever the causes of his problems, however, Tannehill never fully managed to overcome them.
His numbers during the regular season – 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, an 89.6 quarterback rating – harkened back to his darker days in Miami more than they reflected his much-improved play in 2019 and 2020.
There were times, certainly, that Tannehill seemed on the verge of getting back in his old groove. Over the last three weeks of the regular season, for instance, the 33-year-old helped guide the Titans to three straight important wins over San Francisco, Miami and Houston, throwing seven touchdowns and zero interceptions in the process.
He’s back, it was easy to say.
But then came Saturday, when Tannehill produced a three-interception clunker that doomed the Titans to defeat on an afternoon when the defense sacked Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow nine times – tying an NFL playoff record -- and held the high-flying Bengals offense to a single touchdown.
While it’s true wins and losses can’t be pinned on just one player, it’s also true that quarterback is the most important position on the field.
So, as much praise as was heaped on Tannehill over the course of his first two seasons, it’s only fair he takes much of the blame for Saturday’s upset loss, the second straight year he and the Titans had failed to win their first playoff game at Nissan Stadium.
“This is brutal,” Tannehill said moments after the loss. “It’s going to hurt for a long time. It is going to be on my mind for a long time. It is going to take a long time to get over. You don’t look forward to this situation. You don’t look forward to being out when you had a great opportunity, and this is just one of those things that time will heal.”
This was a game, much like the season, in which not a lot was really needed from Tannehill and the Titans offense. Scoring 20 points would have done the trick. Not turning the ball over three times? That would have gone a long way to sending the Titans to the AFC Championship as well.
There are never good times for interceptions, but each of Tannehill’s three picks produced significant gut punches for the two-tone blue.
The very first play? How deflating is that for a home crowd frothing at the mouth for a good start? That interception gave the Bengals an early 3-0 lead.
Then there was the red-zone pick early in the third quarter, when Tannehill threw a pass that was batted and picked by Mike Hilton with Tennessee at the Bengals’ 9-yard line. It was the first time the Titans had thrown the ball during that drive, following four running plays. Sadly, it was one throw too many. That cost the Titans at least a field goal, very possibly a touchdown.
Then the backbreaker, just as it looked like the Titans – despite all their struggles – might have figured out a way to win, as they have more often than not in recent years. Instead, on third-and-5 at the Tennessee 40-yard line, Tannehill fired a tight-window downfield pass intended for Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, only to see Eli Apple tip a pass that Logan Wilson intercepted with 20 seconds remaining.
“We were trying to get a shot over the top and they ended up rolling to a form of cover-three zone, the corner was high on top of Nick,” Tannehill said. “I held the inside backer with my eyes and tried to get it in there as he came back to the quarterback to get us across the 50. We had two timeouts and a couple of shots to get us into field-goal range to kick the game winner.”
Instead, it was Tannehill’s last pass attempt of the season, as Burrow proceeded to do what Tannehill couldn’t do – move his team into range for a game-winning field-goal attempt.
So, what happens next?
Those who are pounding the table in hopes the Titans move on from Tannehill are likely to be disappointed. It wasn’t too long ago, let’s remember, that Titans coach Mike Vrabel said he expected Tannehill to be the team’s starter for a long time. On a more practical note, the Titans would be wrecked financially in 2022 by cutting Tannehill, as he would cost them nearly $39 million in dead money against the cap, per overthecap.com.
Trading for Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson? Total pipe dreams. There’s no way the Titans could afford to do so with Tannehill’s money on the books.
So, barring an unforeseen turn of events, we will see Tannehill lining up under center for the Titans once again in 2022.
Maybe things will be different for him next season. Maybe another year with offensive coordinator Todd Downing will make for a better Tannehill and a better offense. Maybe there will be fewer injuries to contend with, more time for Tannehill to find that all-important chemistry with his playmakers.
But as Tannehill made a long, lonely jog from midfield toward the locker room following Saturday’s loss, he had to be wondering – as are the rest of us: Where did the magic go? And will it ever return?